March 17, 2023

In Memoriam: Keith Johnstone, Faculty of Arts

Campus flag lowered March 17, 2023
Keith Johnstone
Keith Johnstone Dale Dudeck

The University of Calgary is mourning the loss of longtime drama professor Keith Johnstone, who died March 11, 2023, at the age of 90, but we are far from alone in our grief. Johnstone’s passing is being felt internationally in the worlds of theatre and comedy, which were so impacted by his revolutionary teaching methods within the field of improvisation.

The renowned instructor, playwright, and director was the co-founder of Calgary’s Loose Moose Theatre Company, which served as a springboard for such famed actor-comedians as Kids in the Hall members Bruce McCulloch and Mark McKinney, FUBAR’s Dave Lawrence and Paul Spence, Kim’s Convenience star Andrew Phung, Workin’ Moms star Ryan Belleville, and Parks and Recreation writer and producer Norm Hiscock, among others.

Born in England in 1933, Johnstone began developing his methods at the Royal Court Theatre (1956-1966) where he was a playwright, head of the script department, a director, influential member of the famous Writers’ Group, expert on Samuel Beckett, and head of the RCT Studio for professional actors. Around 1965, Johnstone began directing “demonstrations of improvised comedy” at RCT, in schools, and on London stages. Remarkable because, until the Theatres Act of 1968 brought censorship to an end, improvisation performances in public were illegal.

At the RCT Studio, Johnstone discovered the actors that would become The Theatre Machine (1967), Britain’s first pure improvisational troupe. Under Johnstone’s direction, Theatre Machine toured throughout Europe amassing large numbers of fans. Johnstone also taught at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (1966-‘71) and was invited to teach and direct internationally almost every year over the next five decades.

He moved to Canada in 1972 where he became a professor in the University of Calgary’s Department of Drama. It was here where he developed Theatresports as a method for teaching his students improvisational skills on the stage. Theatresports is a form of improvisational theatre that pits opposing teams against one another, very often with comedic results, each side developing their performances on the fly based on suggestions from the audience, who ultimately declare one team the winner.

Johnstone’s methods redefined accepted approaches to theatrical improvisation while publications such as IMPRO: Improvisation and the Theatre (1979) and Impro for Storytellers (1994) remain essential reading for aspiring actors to this day.

Keith's influence and reach globally is almost unfathomable,” says celebrated actor and director Rebecca Northan, a UCalgary alumna who did her improv training with Johnstone. Reflecting on Johnstone’s widespread reputation for breaking rules and learning from one’s mistakes, she adds: "Keith's ideas have permeated every aspect of my work as an artist. He taught me to be curious, playful, and to continue to misbehave well into adulthood. He encouraged me to be average, and to be obvious, and to risk failure."

Professor Emeritus Brian Smith echoes Northan’s assessment. “He was the enemy of complacency and cliché,” says Smith. “He hated the conventional; he loved what was playful and disruptive. His honest belief in every individual’s unique worth and creativity was transformative for legions of students, and the catalyst for many professional careers.”

Award-winning playwright and current UCalgary Drama professor Clem Martini took acting and playwriting classes from Johnstone in the 1970s, eventually becoming an early member of Loose Moose. He remembers Johnstone as “one of the most astute, articulate teachers of improvisation I have ever encountered. His classes were electric, funny, fast, and often thought provoking. Sometimes life altering.”

While the loss of Johnstone is reverberating throughout theatre communities around the globe, nowhere is it more immediate and meaningful than in the city and the university he called home for so many years.

As per Johnstone’s wishes, “a festive wake” will be held in his honour at a future date. Details of this will be posted on his personal website.